Some thoughts about independence from 1789
No History Club this week; we’re preparing for the holiday weekend here in the U.S.
Before our live show in New York last week, a few of us reminisced about July 4th celebrations. That got me curious: how was the Fourth of July celebrated in the early American republic, just after independence?
To answer this fully would be a much longer project—one which historians have already written about. Yoni Appelbaum, a PhD-historian-turned-magazine-editor, wrote a piece for The Atlantic years ago that talked about how bonfires were a staple of early America, in particular massive bonfires in Massachusetts that were built out of grocery barrels, a tradition that continued well into the 20th century. (This video shows how large the bonfires were!)
To satisfy my own curiosity, I looked in newspapers from July 1789, one year after ratification of the U.S. Constitution and three months after the formation of the new government. One New York newspaper recorded:
“The anniversary of Independence is to be celebrated this day with unusual demonstrations of joy, by the citizens of New-York. The Cincinnati are to assemble at St. Paul’s at 12 o’clock, where an Eulogium to the memory of the immortal GREENE, will be delivered by the Hon. Mr. HAMILTON.”
The Mr. Hamilton mentioned was, of course, Alexander Hamilton, a recent subject of History Club (see here and here) and a champion of the U.S. Constitution. The Greene referenced was Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, an American Revolutionary general who died from heat stroke three years earlier. Hamilton had been asked by colleagues of the fallen officer to eulogize him and the cause he fought for, which Hamilton did eloquently (you can read Hamilton’s speech here).
More interesting, though, was another article in the same paper titled, “The Day!” The unattributed column noted that since 1776 the nation had independence in name only, “the shadow without the substance.” Now, with a Constitution ratified and a new government installed, the republic could finally celebrate without the specter of gloom and uncertainty. “As the object of the revolution was not only Independence, but Governance, our success must have been deemed incomplete,” the writer said. The new Constitution had given rise to “a system of just legislation.”
Governance and “just legislation” struck a particular chord with me in 2021. Scholars have talked about how though the American War of Independence is long over, the American Revolution remains ongoing. Part of that revolution is recognizing that though we may have independence, it means little without just laws and governance that undergird it. Independence without justice is merely a shadow. In the wake of the pandemic and after a year of civil, political and racial unrest, the specters of “gloom and uncertainty” still linger over our country. Many unfair laws and unequal practices remain, even as our independence endures.
The column went on to celebrate American exceptionalism (another frequent topic in History Club), and in particular the diffusion of knowledge in the early republic symbolized by “numberless seminaries of learning, scattered through all parts of the country, and that generous concern for the public interest, which pervades all ranks of citizens.” Of course, in 1789, there were many Americans—enslaved, Indigenous, women—without the rights of citizenship and for whom no generous concern was given. But these remain worthy ideals: Just legislation. Numerous seminaries of learning. Concern for the welfare of all humanity across all segments of society.
Hamilton may have, in fact, authored this column, or had a hand in writing it. The newspaper in question, Gazette of the United States, was a Federalist newspaper first published earlier that year by editor John Fenno. Hamilton was the paper’s chief fundraiser; he also contributed many anonymous letters and essays. (His support for the paper explains the advertisement for his speech at St. Paul’s). Hamilton himself was an elitist and a nativist, often not willing to live up to the lofty words he placed on paper. His writings had clear intentions to rally support for the system of government he and his allies proposed. Media agendas existed in the 18th century, just as they do in the 21st century.
Nonetheless, the questions debated in early America can inform our thinking today, even if they were posited by imperfect messengers. The writer of this column surmised towards its end that,
“When the inhabitants of a country are under the protection of good laws, when they find their confidence is justly placed in the administration, and they realize that their persons are protected, and their property secured, advances to aid the public are always prompt, and liberal.”
How do we ensure that we make good laws? How do we secure and maintain confidence in our government? How do we ensure that all Americans feel protected and secured? What would an independence in both shadow and substance look like?
Some questions to ponder as we celebrate American independence this holiday weekend. Have a happy Fourth of July.
Recap: Live, from New York!
Last week’s live History Club was a tremendous success. It was also a ton of fun.
Several of us gathered for dinner in New York City, after which we walked to a nearby apartment. We sat around a table, opened a bottle of wine, logged onto Clubhouse, and traded stories and histories of the Big Apple in person and online. It was terrific!
It was so much fun, we will surely do it again. Want History Club to come to your city? Send me an email, and let’s see if we can make it happen!
History Club will be intermittent for the next few weeks. The reason? I am under deadline to (finally) finish my book.
I’ve mentioned several times in History Club that I’m writing a book about how history gets communicated on the Web and social media. The manuscript was submitted earlier this year; now I need to integrate feedback from the editors and peer reviewers. Once I do, it’ll be complete.
But, it turns out running weekly history shows and finishing a manuscript are incredibly time-consuming. So, I’ll be taking time to complete the book, while also checking in with you via newsletter about upcoming Clubhouse shows and blog posts. Stay tuned to this space for updates!
And for those asking: the book should come out at the end of this year—possibly early next year. Lots more on this subject in the months ahead.
Also on my to-do list: podcasts! Several recent History Clubs were recorded, all of which were excellent conversations. As time allows, podcasts of the shows will be posted to the History Club website.
Also check out Civics Unplugged, a nonprofit mobilizing young people to be more engaged in our democracy. I had the chance to visit with Civics Unplugged in New York; they are terrific entrepreneurs with exciting ideas.
History Club meets Thursdays at 10 pm ET exclusively on Clubhouse. Want to participate? Suggest a topic for a future conversation.
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